Strike 4

The baseball deal will either make the game worse for fans or it'll be a sham that won't hold salaries down. The owners came close to wrecking the season for this?

By Allen Barra
Published August 30, 2002 10:39PM (EDT)

Let's start with the short form. The crisis was phony, the issues were a crock and the deal is a sham. Well, it's about 50-50 that it will turn out to be a sham. No matter what anyone says, it has yet to be proven that the basic agreement worked out between the baseball owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association will ultimately hold salaries down. That was the whole purpose of commissioner Bud Selig's campaign from the outset, and the truth is we don't know if it will work until some big-name free agents' contracts are up for negotiation.

Meanwhile, what we can say unequivocally is that the rest of the deal is a sham and that both the short- and long-term results of it are going to make baseball less popular. It will, however, have the short-term effect of making the owners bigger profits.

Let's jump right into it: The luxury tax that the two sides agreed to will either keep salaries down or it won't. If it does, then there will be less spending by the richer owners and therefore less money to throw into the pool for the less-richer owners. If the tax doesn't succeed in retarding spending, then we're all right back where we started from, because the revenue-sharing mechanism is entirely meaningless if the owners aren't stimulated to spend. And what good Republican really thinks that raising taxes ever stimulated spending?

Not Bud Selig, that's for sure. So in all likelihood there will be less money for the less-rich teams over the next four years than there was for the previous six (which amounted to, by the way, $674 million). And guess what? After all this talk of "competitive balance," there isn't a word in the basic agreement about compelling the small-market owners to spend a dime on salaries.

Let's stop for a moment and talk about competitive balance. At today's press conference, Bud Selig reiterated that this was "all about restoring competitive balance." To say "restoring" competitive balance implies that there was a time when baseball had competitive balance. Now when would that time have been? From early in the 20th century to early in the 1920s when the New York Giants dominated? From early in the 1920s to early in the 1960s when the Yankees dominated? Exactly which era of "competitive balance" are we trying to restore? Could he possibly mean the era of competitive balance that was ushered in when players earned the right to become free agents? In point of fact, this has been the greatest era of competitive balance in the game's history.

Baseball's financial situation is often contrasted negatively with that of the National Football League's and, in some cases, with the National Basketball Association's. "There is a greater chance for a team to make the playoffs," the refrain generally goes. Well, of course there is, at least in theory. But it has nothing to do with the level of competition and everything to do with the illusion of competitive balance created by the greater number of playoff spots available. The NFL offers 12 playoff slots to baseball's eight, and the NBA offers a ridiculous 16. (In other words, nearly 60 percent of NBA teams are destined to make the playoffs, no matter how crappy their seasonal performance.)

But how does it all wind up when it comes time to play for the championship? Since 1981, five years after free agency had a chance to kick in in baseball, 20 different teams have played in the World Series, while in the supposedly competitively balanced NFL, only 18 different teams have played in the Super Bowl. (The NBA has seen just 15 different teams play in its finals.) Remember, baseball didn't have a World Series in 1994.

Baseball suffers in this comparison with other sports because of a period when the Yankees happened to win a few World Series. (Wasn't it about time for that to happen anyway?) Still, since 1996, when the Yankees won their first World Series in 18 seasons, there have been 7 different teams in the World Series and 8 different teams in the Super Bowl. What exactly is there in the NFL structure that made it necessary to risk the entire baseball season to emulate? And speaking of this baseball season, as we go to press, three of the six divisions in baseball are currently being led by small-market teams (Oakland, Minnesota and St. Louis) while one, Arizona, was an expansion team just four years ago. Arizona, by the way, was the second expansion team (the Florida Marlins were the first) to win the World Series. No expansion franchise has ever won the Super Bowl or the NBA finals.

If Selig's plan works out, though, there will be one way in which baseball will emulate the NFL that will be entirely unexpected and unwanted: Do you remember a few years ago what the struggle between players and owners was supposed to be about? Does anyone now remember that it was supposed to be about players not switching teams so often? That the main evil of free agency was that it encouraged players to change teams all the time and thus undermine the fans' identification and loyalty? (Studies later proved that players didn't switch teams any more under free agency than before, but let that pass for now.) Well, has anyone noticed that the NFL salary cap is currently having that effect? That the fans in Baltimore and across the entire nation scarcely had a chance to learn the names of the world champion Baltimore Ravens before spending restrictions scattered the greatest defense in NFL history all over the league?

Perhaps it doesn't matter that much in football, where most players, particularly the usually anonymous linemen, aren't all known or recognized by the average fan. But you can damn well bet that a similar effect is going to be noticed in baseball, where real fans can tell who's sitting in the bullpen by the way he crosses his legs. Get used to it: If this luxury tax accomplishes what Bud Selig wants it to accomplish, then from now on the primary engine for moving players from team to team won't be free agency or voluntary trades, but deals on teams by spending restrictions. You who supported the owners during the labor negotiations: Is this what you wanted?

And then, on the other hand, there's always the chance that once again the luxury tax will not retard spending, which means that when the time comes to go through this mess again -- and make no mistake about it, contrary to all the phony good will that was oozing between player reps and owners on the podium -- Bud Selig will have forced just enough rope from the players with which to hang himself.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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